Visions of pizza usually center on the thick-crusted, cheesy creations assembled at a restaurant — not an organic farm in southern Illinois. At the R Pizza Farm near Alton, about 90 miles southwest of Springfield, visitors can learn how ingredients for a pizza can be grown with organic farming methods. Its owner, Walt Gregory, is a businessman turned organic farmer, a teacher of organic farming techniques and a “minister” who gently shares his faith in God with the 6,000 or so people who will visit the farm this year.

Visions of pizza usually center on the thick-crusted, cheesy creations assembled at a restaurant — not an organic farm in southern Illinois.

At the R Pizza Farm near Alton, about 90 miles southwest of Springfield, visitors can learn how ingredients for a pizza can be grown with organic farming methods.

Its owner, Walt Gregory, is a businessman turned organic farmer, a teacher of organic farming techniques and a “minister” who gently shares his faith in God with the 6,000 or so people who will visit the farm this year.

On a recent tour, Gregory greeted rain-drenched guests on the front porch of a log cabin that faces the half-acre circular plot that is divided like the slices of a pizza. Each slice represents a different ingredient that is grown or raised for the pizza. Tours cost $7.50 and include two slices of pizza and a drink for lunch.

The half-acre pizza farm is a small portion of the overall business called R Farm, an organic farm that sells produce to four farmer’s markets and 160 families as part of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

While waiting out the rain, Gregory — a fit 63-year-old who sports a white beard and mustache that fits his winter occupation as Santa Claus — tells the story of how his obsession with organic farming began nearly 50 years ago.

The man who changed his life

Gregory was 14 in 1960, when he was offered a horse in exchange for mowing a man’s yard for the summer. The catch: He had to find a place to board the horse. That proved to be a huge obstacle.

Gregory lived in Alton with his parents and six sisters. He didn’t know any farmers who would consider helping him. His mother suggested he ride his bike into the country and ask some farmers. Gregory said he rode for hours without any luck.

After days of trying, he made one last attempt at a farm down the road. Gregory rode his bike up the driveway of Lathey Martin.

“I’ve been praying you’d come here, son,” the 74-year-old Martin told Gregory. Martin and his wife, Mary, didn’t have any children and needed help to keep up the farm in their old age. In exchange for helping on the farm, Martin agreed to keep Gregory’s horse and provide the feed.

Martin became Gregory’s unlikely mentor. Gregory was a white teenager who lived in the city. Martin was one of a few African-American farmers in the Alton area. In 1960 in southern Illinois, the civil rights movement was picking up steam, but it was three years before Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and his “I Have A Dream” speech.

Gregory said race never made a difference in their partnership. Gregory’s parents never hesitated to allow him to spend time with an elderly black man — even after neighbors shunned the family for months for having Martin over for Christmas dinner.

Gregory spent nearly every day for the next six years working and learning on the Martin farm. Martin didn’t allow any tractors on his farm and he didn’t use any pesticides. He used the Farmer’s Almanac and the moon signs to decide when and where to plant.

It was the spiritual connection between the young Catholic boy and the elderly Southern Baptist man that made the difference, Gregory said.

“Sitting and talking to him was like sitting and talking to Jesus,” Gregory said. “He was so genuine. He had no arrogance about him.”

Farming was an extension of Martin’s spirituality, Gregory said: “Mr. Martin taught me to sit and pay attention to nature, and you’ll never make a mistake.”

Martin also insisted that Gregory study the Bible.

“‘What in the world does the Bible have to do with farming?’” Gregory asked.

“‘Look in the Bible and you will find the answer,’” Martin answered. “‘You need to give up your free will that God gave you.’”

Gregory said he promised Martin that he would study the Bible.

But, “I lied to him,” he said.

Martin died at the age of 80. Twenty years passed before Gregory begin studying the Bible the way Martin intended. But he eventually came to understand why his mentor spent two hours studying the Bible each night before going to bed, and Gregory says he is committed to following the principles Martin instilled in him.

“Mr. Martin was the smartest man I ever met,” Gregory said.

Finding his roots

Gregory fell away from farming over the years. He went to what is now called Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo., earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Then he worked as an insurance manager in St. Louis for 20 years.

When he was 49, Gregory decided to retire. He bought the farm in Dow, moved there with his wife, Carol, who is a nurse, and three children and began relearning the ways of Lathey Martin.

“My biggest worry is that I forgot something he told me,” Gregory said.

Gregory was at a farming conference in California about 10 years ago when he toured a pizza farm and decided to bring the concept to Illinois. California farmer Dareen Schmall started the first pizza farm and eventually established a franchise for the concept, allowing Gregory to duplicate the idea. (Gregory has the franchise rights for half of Missouri and for Illinois, including an R Pizza Farm in Golden, northeast of Quincy.)

Schmall’s farm didn’t use organic farming techniques. But Gregory adapted the concept to educate people about organic farming and how the ingredients of a pizza are grown.

Gregory said he became passionate about promoting organic farming and gardening because he believes the food system in the United States contributes to problems such as cancer, immune diseases, allergies, attention deficit disorder and autism.

“It’s critical to teach people how to grow their own food without going to a grocery store,” Gregory said.

Organic crops as certified and regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are generally grown without synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, irradiation (a form of radiation used to kill bacteria) or biotechnology. Animals on organic farms eat organically grown feed, aren’t confined all the time and are raised without antibiotics or growth hormones.

Many traditional farmers disagree that herbicides, pesticides and growth hormones are harmful and insist they are necessary to control weeds and insects that interfere with mass production.

On the tour

The R Pizza Farm tour includes examples of a raised bed that can feed a family of four throughout the year. Gregory also teaches seminars on planting raised beds and organic farming techniques.

On a recent tour, Braden Remmert, 11, said he liked feeding the goats. He visited the farm with his grandparents, Bob and Nancy Remmert of St. Louis, who buy produce from the R Pizza Farm at a farmers market.

“This is what cheese looks like when it’s alive,” Gregory said as Braden fed goats. Goat milk can be made into cheese, and Gregory noted that 69.8 percent of the meat sold in the world is goat.

Another wedge of the pizza held Vietnamese potbellied pigs. Gregory said he would never eat one of his pet pigs, and that they do not provide good meat. But he displays them for learning purposes because sausage on pizza comes from pigs.

Gregory says pigs are the most-used animal. The tail is used to make brushes. The skin is used for footballs. The bone can be made into bone china, and the blood was used as an ingredient in lipstick.

“The squeal of a pig is the only part that a human can’t use,” he said.

A cow provides beef on the pizza. A calf named Jake represented the breed on the tour.

Numerous tomato varieties, including rare varieties from Poland and other countries, grow in the pizza plot. Gregory said he is experimenting with growing tomatoes without stakes, like they would be found in nature.

Gregory said he doesn’t worry about rabbits eating the plants or bug infestations. “I grow more than I need,” he said. “Nature is a fine balance. God is perfect.”

Other plants on the pizza bed include wheat and other grains; basil, parsley and some medicinal herbs; horseradish; and chickens, which provide eggs for the crust and the meat topping for
Gregory’s favorite pizza: barbecue chicken.

Usually, a pizza wedge includes several varieties of sweet peppers, including the delectable chocolate pepper, a favorite of Lathey Martin.

The key to growing the delicacy, Gregory said, is patience. Leave a sweet green pepper on the vine well past the green stage — 20 to 30 days longer — and it turns into the “sweetest sweet pepper.”

Martin, Gregory said, would hold a chocolate pepper up to his face and say: “Isn’t it neat that God made the sweetest, sweet pepper the same color as he made me?”

What’s next?

Gregory is 63 now. He doesn’t plan to stay on the farm until he is 80 like Mr. Martin. Gregory said he would like to retire to southern Missouri someday and focus more on teaching.

He has asked his children if they would take over the farm. His daughter, her husband and two children live and work on the farm. He also has two sons. A decision has not been made.

Earlier this year, Gregory hired Ian Steiber, an organic farmer from New York. Steiber is learning to manage the community share portion of the business and thinking about how to communicate his passion for organic farming in an area dominated by corporate farmers.

Steiber’s New York style is more abrasive than Gregory’s, who has taken on the gentler nature of his mentor. “Ian doesn’t buy into the spirituality aspect,” Gregory said.

But he is trying to be a patient mentor, like Martin was for him.

“I am a humble servant,” Gregory said, “willing to do God’s job without question.”

State Journal-Register

Getting there

R Pizza Farm: 25873 State Highway 3 near Dow (about 90 miles southwest of Springfield). Take Interstate 55 south to Litchfield. Take Illinois 16 west to Jerseyville. At Jerseyville, take State Highway 109 south. R Pizza Farm is at the junction of State Highways 109 and 3.

Contacts: (618) 466-5950, rpizzafarm@sbcglobal.net


Raised bed garden seminar

When: 9 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 22

Where: R Pizza Farm

What’s happening: Participants will build a raised bed, prepare the soil and plant vegetables in two raised beds that could feed a family of four for a year.

Fee: $50 per person or $75 for a couple. Call (618) 466-5950 for reservations.